patagón     works by Cindy Cox

ALEXANDER STRING QUARTET
FCL 2015


Audiophile Audition names "Patagón" a Best Recording of 2015 (Feb. 2016)


“The opening Elegy for the difficult and sometimes intractable medium of solo violin does no violence to the nature of the instrument, and indeed begins with a sense of rapture which charms the ear before leading on to a more emotional climax… Columba aspexit is likewise an elegy… It takes as its foundation a chant by Hildegard of Bingen, developing it initially in a densely argued polyphonic style and featuring a series of canonic elaborations of the material. Around two-thirds of the way through the four linked movements the music becomes more explicitly attuned to the medium of the string quartet, with pizzicato passages even leading to Bartókian ‘snap’ plucking of the strings, but again the idiom is ideally suited to the instruments and is handled gratefully and gracefully by the Alexander players. … Patagón is described by the composer as a series of portraits of aspects of the Patagonian landscape, and the movements bear descriptive titles such as Southern right whales and Magellanic penguins. The composer in her note draws attention to her use of various ‘avant garde’ string techniques, but these do not force themselves upon the listener as elements in their own right, seeming instead to be purely illustrative. … the very closeness of the recording enables one to appreciate the precise and well-tuned playing of the Alexander Quartet even during the deliberately scratchy opening to the fourth movement The sleeping cold earth (track 9). There is quite a sense of fun, even, in the final The southern cross and the revolving sky (track 10), with ‘avant garde’ techniques employed to picaresque effect.…”
— Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International

“You want the short review? This is the best new music disc I have heard this year, and you should buy it. That was for those of you shopping and caught up in the Christmas season. … Cox seems to have a thing for quartet writing, and if she stops at two it will be a tragedy. Color, exquisite rhythmic turns, evocative harmonies, and coalescence of melodic invention all conspire to make her music richly rewarding and horizon-expanding. The Alexander plays perfectly, and the Foghorn sound is great. An enthusiastic recommendation!”
— Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition (5 Star Review! Dec. 2015)

“Cox’s music here is quite fascinating, quite varied and not easy to describe. The composer Robert Carl, writing in Fanfare Magazine, said that “Cox writes music that demonstrates an extremely refined and imaginative sense of instrumental colour and texture … this is well wrought, imaginative, and not easily classifiable music.” It’s exactly that. … Inspired by a trip to the Valdes peninsula nature preserve in southern Argentina, [Patagón] employs some quite remarkable effects, including sliding harmonics, col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), sul ponticello (playing near the bridge), sul tasto (playing above the fingerboard) and overbowing, where the bow is pressed hard but slowly against the strings. Imagine these sounds and then look at the title of the third movement – Southern right whales and Magellanic penguins – and you will have some idea why these effects seem so perfectly suited to the music. … The ASQ and Cox have been collaborating ever since that early recording of the Columba quartet, and it’s hard to imagine more satisfying or better-informed performances of these lovely works.”
— Terry Robbins, The Whole Note (Feb. 2016)

A note from the Alexander String Quartet:

Cindy Cox graciously accepted our invitation to write a new quartet to help us celebrate our thirtieth anniversary in 2013. In fact, she recklessly jumped in without a commission in place, agreeing to undertake the work during the sabbatical she was taking with her family in South America. The Quartet has admired her meticulous compositional voice for almost two decades, ever since we performed and recorded her first string quartet, Columba aspexit. When the time came to invite composers to join in our thirtieth-anniversary celebration, it seemed fitting to choose a composer from our own generation and locale. Cindy has lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for as long as we have, so we felt it right on this occasion to champion one of our own and then take the piece to a wider audience when touring far afield.

Our introduction to Cindy’s music came almost by accident when she asked us to perform (and then to record for CRI) her Columba aspexit, composed for our colleagues in the Kronos Quartet. The piece immediately engaged us as we grappled with its unusual technical challenges, including what might be one of the trickiest, high-maintenance fourth movements in the literature. But the lyric and atmospheric elegance of Cindy’s soundscape prevailed, beautifully haunting perhaps just because of those challenges. Columba remains one of our all-time favorite contemporary discoveries, and we were delighted to re-record it for this new compilation.

Cindy composed Patagón specifically for our thirtieth-anniversary celebration. After extended rehearsals with her, spent honing the new work’s evocative effects and becoming comfortable with the fluidity of its arch form, we gave the premiere of Patagón on April 13, 2012, on the Santa Rosa Junior College Chamber Concert Series. This was followed by a performance on our own Morrison Chamber Music Center’s Artists Series at SFSU. On both occasions the work was rapturously received. The present recording, made in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall in 2012 and 2013, includes Zak Grafilo’s performance of the Elegy for solo violin.

We are delighted to collect in this release three beautiful works by a cherished friend and colleague.


NOTES FROM THE COMPOSER


Elegy (1990) for solo violin (Zak Grafilo)

Elegy is dedicated to the memory of my friend Eric Heckard, a wonderfully talented composer who died in 1989 at the young age of twenty-six. We were students together at Indiana University.

Columba aspexit, after Hildegard von Bingen (1995) in four movements, played without pause

Columba aspexit has its origins in a chant by the twelfth-century mystic Hildegard. Her visions and prophecies are collected in a large volume called Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Celestial Harmonies), and within this collection are fourteen chants, “Columba aspexit” being one of them. It presents a vision of Saint Maximinus as a celebrant at Mass, and is full of elaborate and vivid symbolism.

I found the music of this particular chant quite striking, both for its large range and its unusual references to the major mode, which in combination create a kind of ecstatic and transcendent character. In each movement I took a different section of the chant and worked with its melodic material in my own way, responding to the inward spirituality of the music in its breadth and scope and extraordinary imagery. The quartet is in four movements, played without pause. In the introduction there is a slow, meditative, and disjunct theme (distinctly different from the chant) marked “elegy” which recurs throughout the work, and is loosely connected to the solo violin Elegy opening this CD.

The quartet has many oblique references to notions of the ancient and the archaic, especially in its uses of canon (a kind of strict imitation between members of the quartet). The chant first appears after a short introduction, and is elaborated and treated in the first movement in a four-part canon, using intricately varied vocalize type phrases. Two other canons in movements two and four follow, broken up by many episodes of contrasting music. The canon in movement two is a mensural canon, that is, the voices are imitating each other at different rates of speed. The voices follow one another to a high point marked by a large climax, and then fall in retrograde to their original starting point. The canon in the fourth movement uses a minimalist “phase” technique, with the voices slowly pulling away from each other and progressively becoming more and more frenzied. The original version of the chant does not appear until almost the end of the piece, in a simple and heartfelt modal setting.

Columba aspexit is dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Terrell Cox-Hurst, my daughter who died at birth. This piece was supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that supports the visual, literary, and performing arts to benefit all Americans.

Patagón

Patagón is the ancient, archaic name for the land of Patagonia. My newer compositions increasingly link to nature and landscape, and this latest string quartet evokes the idea of the far away, the other-worldly, and the remote. In 2011, I spent a sabbatical leave in travels to South America, and I was particularly inspired by a trip to the Valdes peninsula, a large nature preserve in the southern region of Argentina.

In this string quartet I try to elicit as many colors as possible, by using many different playing techniques — especially techniques involving bowing and harmonics. In the beginning you will hear an odd effect that string players call the “seagull”; it involves playing an artificially produced harmonic (by touching the string above a fingered note) while simultaneously gliding down the string — a very beautiful and eerie sound that does indeed evoke seagulls. Also in the opening is a gesture played with the wood of the bow (called “col legno”); it is a kind of “heartbeat” idea that is featured throughout all the movements.

Very prominent in the piece are the use of harmonics, where the player touches the string at a node that produces pitches that follow the overtone series. Other special techniques include playing near the bridge of the instrument, for a very glassy sound (“sul ponticello”), playing on the fingerboard for a very white, subdued quality (“sul tasto”), and pressing the bow very hard against the strings while bowing slowly (“overbowing”)  —  this last effect produces a harsh, crunchy sound that is sometimes difficult for the player to control. The third movement in particular was inspired by a couple of special days I spent with my family seeing the southern right whales (huge creatures that came right up next to our boat!) and visiting an enormous penguin colony — over half a million — at Punta Tombo, which my eleven-year-old daughter particularly enjoyed.

The titles of the movements pretty much explain themselves, but the last bears some note:
the “Southern Cross” is the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of our Northern Star. Like the Northern Star, people use the Southern Cross set of stars as a fixed guidepost in the night sky, and other constellations are seen as revolving around it.

This piece was commissioned by the Alexander String Quartet for the occasion of their thirtieth anniversary season, and is gratefully dedicated to them.

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Cover image for Patagón — works by Cindy Cox


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•  •  •

TRACK LISTING

1    ELEGY (1990) for solo violin

2    Columba aspexit,
after Hildegard von Bingen (1995)
in four movements, played without pause

3    PATAGÓN (2011)


I.     Las aguas del sur (“The southern sea”)

II.    La tierra caliente que duerme
       (“The sleeping warm earth”) 

III.   Ballenas australes y
        pingüinos de Magallanes

        (“Southern right whales
        and Magellanic penguins”)

IV.    La tierra fría que duerme
        (“The sleeping cold earth”) 

V.     La cruz del sur y el cielo que gira
        (“The southern cross
        and the revolving sky”)


•  •  •

“Elegy for solo violin is a five-minute, slowly-unfolding, eloquent tribute. Zakarias Grafilo plays it beautifully, particularly the stratospherically-high final section: the music seems to ascend into silence like a spirit finding the higher realms. … Out of that silence, the quiet opening of Columba aspexit emerges. … Counterpoint is a vital part of the expressive world of this piece, particularly canon. The second movement is rather restless; Cox’s use of pizzicato is most effective. There is also a sense of mourning here (the piece is dedicated to the memory of composer’s daughter, Elisabeth Terrell Cox-Hurst, who sadly died at birth). In the final part, Cox adds minimalist phasing to the mix. The sense of rising frenzy, almost impending panic, towards the end is perfectly projected here by the Alexander Quartet. … The title of Patagón itself refers to Patagonia and reflects the composer’s recent linkage of music to nature (the piece was written in 2011, while on sabbatical in South America). Deliberately utilizing a wide variety of instrumental techniques (glissando harmonics to invoke a seagull, for example, and col legno to represent the heartbeat of the piece), this is a stunning demonstration of how expert scoring married to a wide-ranging imagination can bear infinitely satisfying fruit. … The Alexander Quartet commissioned Patagón on the occasion of their thirtieth anniversary season. It is dedicated to them. In this, as in all three pieces, the conviction of the performances is never in doubt. The recording standard for the entire disc is of the highest.”
— Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine (Jan. 2016)

“Cindy Cox and the Alexander String Quartet have enjoyed a close working relationship for almost two decades, and that strong connection comes across beautifully in this recording of Cox’s “Patagón.” ASQ approaches the score with their customary flair and polish, mastering the extended techniques and bringing out all the richness and eloquence of this wide-ranging composition. The result is spell-binding, and demonstrates why this composer and this string quartet are so revered and celebrated.”
— Sarah Cahill, pianist, writer, producer and radio host (Revolutions Per Minute, KALW)

“Her music, in my experience, is always buoyant, puckish, rhythmically alive and crisply engaging.” — Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Cindy Cox writes music that demonstrates an extremely refined and imaginative sense of instrumental color and texture… This is well-wrought, imaginative, and not easily classifiable music.”— Robert Carl, Fanfare Magazine